Beth Moore & Benevolent Sexism

Beth Moore & Benevolent Sexism

I’ve never been a huge fan of Beth Moore. The reasons for this shifted as my faith and theology did, but I’ve always found a reason to be skeptical of her.  Most recently, she had fallen off my radar, as my list of followed theologians grew beyond common evangelical household names.

Until today, when Beth Moore bravely published a letter to “her brothers” in which she describes what her life has been like as a conservative woman in the evangelical public spotlight.

Spoiler Alert: It has been rife with sexism.

I give her credit: She raised up an entire generation of evangelical women and told them they could actually study the Bible. She took Ladies Bible Study groups from fluffy books barely tied to the Bible to in-depth Scriptural analysis. Don’t get me wrong — I disagree with many of her conclusions, and the last time I participated in a Beth Moore Bible Study I remember wanting to throw the book across the room.

But what she reveals in this post betrays the image she portrays on the platform:

As a woman leader in the conservative Evangelical world, I learned early to show constant pronounced deference – not just proper respect which I was glad to show – to male leaders and, when placed in situations to serve alongside them, to do so apologetically. I issued disclaimers ad nauseam. I wore flats instead of heels when I knew I’d be serving alongside a man of shorter stature so I wouldn’t be taller than he. I’ve ridden elevators in hotels packed with fellow leaders who were serving at the same event and not been spoken to and, even more awkwardly, in the same vehicles where I was never acknowledged. I’ve been in team meetings where I was either ignored or made fun of, the latter of which I was expected to understand was all in good fun. I am a laugher. I can take jokes and make jokes. I know good fun when I’m having it and I also know when I’m being dismissed and ridiculed. I was the elephant in the room with a skirt on.

This sounds more like a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale than the actions of people who claim to be following the ways of Jesus. It reeks of uneven power dynamics used to oppress. These men shroud their sin in “theological interpretations” and seem justified, pious, godly. They point to a text and convince themselves — and others — that their bias is holy and ordained by God.

See, the men in Moore’s stories — the ones who refused to speak to her (following the Billy Graham Rule, to be sure), the ones who expected her deference (didn’t you know God created Adam first?), the ones who commented on her appearance instead of her call — they didn’t see themselves as sinning through their actions. If anything, I am certain they saw themselves as embodying Godly Manhood.

When I was in college, a well-loved professor came to my floor for a Q&A about Complementation Theology. I dutifully took notes, but I could not ignore the knot in my stomach that got tighter and tighter as the night went on. I only remember one specific thing he said: “As a woman, you never lay your cards on the table first in a relationship. He needs to be the first to tell you how he feels, the first to tell you where God is leading you as a couple. Only after he has shared with you, may you share your feelings with him.” At face value, it doesn’t sound bad — maybe a little dated, but not harmful.

 

image.pngBut what that communicated to me, a 19-year-old woman, was that my feelings did not matter as much as a man’s, that my only responsibility was to allow the man to speak first, so that I could affirm him. That my feelings and thoughts couldn’t be trusted, and if a man didn’t feel compelled to have this conversation, I just needed to wait for him. And wait. And wait. And never tell him what I thought or felt. But maybe pray. Then wait some more. We plastered the Bible verse “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” all over our floor and vowed to follow our wise professor’s instructions.

This conversation was only one of many, and I believed the lie that I couldn’t trust myself and that my thoughts and feelings weren’t valid I believed that I couldn’t fully live into my calling without a husband, and even then, my future husband’s desires and decisions would always take precedence. Which is exactly why, for most of my life, I pushed my own gifts aside and lived inauthentically. That is an ungodly and miserable way to live.

The tricky thing is that the overwhelming majority of men I’ve known entrenched in benevolent sexism actually are… not jerks. I enjoyed them and have been (and am) dear friends with them. They aren’t bad people. They aren’t creepy and certainly not predatory. They’re the types of men you want to be around, the types of men you trust to do what is best.

And this is precisely the problem with benevolent sexism: It masquerades as kindness, it masquerades as love — in my experience, it is often done from a place of good intentions… but it is no less harmful to women than overt sexism. Instead of a flash of pain that might compel a victim to seek a different path, this variety is more like lifelong gaslighting, slowly eroding a woman’s self-worth until she never questions another way. Benevolent sexism is often done unintentionally and ensnares men as much as women, but women pay a much higher price. And it’s done in the name of God.

This sort of sexism is a sin of omission: Where women aren’t, what women aren’t allowed to say, who women aren’t allowed to say it to. But all for their own good, of course. It creates an echo chamber that privileges men’s voices and experiences to the point that — in the case of Beth Moore — they won’t even speak to a woman in the room.

Beth Moore is brave, because she named that sexism as what it is: Sin. It isn’t just a different interpretation or theological understanding… it is sin, and it breaks our relationships with each other and with God.

As far as we know from Moore’s letter, no man touched her. No man tried to coerce her into sex. No man was violent toward her. But is that the best we can ask? To NOT be assaulted? There must be a better way. In fact, there is a better way, and it is treating all people the same, not separating and excluding based on gender. It means asking if our reasons for gender roles are actually theological, or if, maybe, just maybe, we’ve never considered an alternative.

I applaud Beth Moore for standing up today, because too many women do not or cannot. As someone with power, privilege, and resources, she knew she is going to face backlash for her words, and she chose to say them anyway. She’s using her voice and her God-given gifts to speak up so that the women who come behind her might have a slightly easier path.

I still don’t agree with all of her theology, and that’s okay. She’d still be welcome behind my pulpit any Sunday —  even in heels.